Study Title:

Mild Aerobics Helps Elderly Brain Size

Study Abstract

The hippocampus shrinks in late adulthood, leading to impaired memory and increased risk for dementia. Hippocampal and medial temporal lobe volumes are larger in higher-fit adults, and physical activity training increases hippocampal perfusion, but the extent to which aerobic exercise training can modify hippocampal volume in late adulthood remains unknown. Here we show, in a randomized controlled trial with 120 older adults, that aerobic exercise training increases the size of the anterior hippocampus, leading to improvements in spatial memory. Exercise training increased hippocampal volume by 2%, effectively reversing age-related loss in volume by 1 to 2 y. We also demonstrate that increased hippocampal volume is associated with greater serum levels of BDNF, a mediator of neurogenesis in the dentate gyrus. Hippocampal volume declined in the control group, but higher preintervention fitness partially attenuated the decline, suggesting that fitness protects against volume loss. Caudate nucleus and thalamus volumes were unaffected by the intervention. These theoretically important findings indicate that aerobic exercise training is effective at reversing hippocampal volume loss in late adulthood, which is accompanied by improved memory function.

From press release:

Just one year of moderate physical exercise in late adulthood can reverse shrinkage of the brain's hippocampus and improve spatial memory, said US researchers in a new study, funded through the National Institute on Aging.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, University of Illinois, Rice University, and Ohio State University, wrote about their project, considered to be the first of its kind, in a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, PNAS paper that was published ahead of print on 31 January.

The hippocampus is a significant part of the brain in humans and other mammals. It belongs to the limbic system and sits deep inside brain tissue in the medial temporal lobe where it plays an important role in long term and other types of memory formation and spatial navigation.

As we enter late adulthood, this part of the brain starts to shrink, leading to loss of memory and increased risk of dementia.

Studies have shown that adults who are fitter tend to have larger medial temporal lobes, and that physical activity increases nutritive blood supply to the hippocampus, but this is the first study to look at the effect of aerobic exercise on the size of the hippocampus in later life.

For the randomized controlled trial, lead author Dr Kirk Erickson, professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, and colleagues, recruited 120 sedentary older adults without dementia and randomized them to one of two groups.

The first group walked around a track for 40 minutes a day for three days a week, and the second group just did stretching and toning exercises.

They did this for a year, during which they also underwent MRI brain scans, spatial memory tests, and gave blood samples, at the beginning, middle and end of the period.

The researchers found that "aerobic exercise training increases the size of the anterior hippocampus, leading to improvements in spatial memory".

More specifically, the results showed that:
Exercise training increased the volume of the hippocampus by 2.12 per cent on the left side and 1.97 per cent on the right side.

This compared to a 1.40 and 1.43 per cent reduction in those same brain regions respectively in the stretching and toning only group (the controls).

Increased hippocampal volume was linked to greater blood levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a biomarker for brain health that is involved in learning and memory.

Although hippocampal volume declined in the control group, the decline was less marked among those members whose fitness levels were higher at the start of the study, suggesting that fitness protects against volume loss.

However, the size of the caudate nucleus (also important for memory) and thalamus (important for processing sensory and spatial information) appeared unaffected by the intervention.
The researchers concluded that:

"These theoretically important findings indicate that aerobic exercise training is effective at reversing hippocampal volume loss in late adulthood, which is accompanied by improved memory function."

Erickson said we tend to accept it as inevitable that our hippocampus will shrink later in life:

"But we've shown that even moderate exercise for one year can increase the size of that structure. The brain at that stage remains modifiable," he said in a statement.

Senior author Dr Art Kramer, director of the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois, said the findings were particularly interesting because they show even modest exercise can make a substantial difference to memory and brain health in sedentary older people:

"Such improvements have important implications for the health of our citizens and the expanding population of older adults worldwide," said Kramer.

Study Information

Kirk I. Erickson, Michelle W. Voss, Ruchika Shaurya Prakash, Chandramallika Basak, Amanda Szabo, Laura Chaddock, Jennifer S. Kim, Susie Heo, Heloisa Alves, Siobhan M. White, Thomas R. Wojcicki, Emily Mailey, Victoria J. Vieira, Stephen A. Martin, Brandt D.
Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory
PNAS
2011 February
Department of Psychology, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15260;

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